A Disaster at Sea

It was 50 years ago, on Saturday 18th March 1967, that the Torrey Canyon oil tanker ran aground on Pollard’s Rock in the Seven Stones reef, between Land’s End and the Isles of Scilly. It was carrying 100,000 tons of crude oil and, following the impact, oil immediately started to leak out. The ship had left the Kuwait refinery with a full cargo of crude oil on Sunday 19th February with the Welsh port of Milford Haven its intended destination. On 14th March she reached the Canary Islands and, following a navigational error, struck Pollard’s Rock.

Attempts to minimise the damage included the bombing of the wreck by aircraft from the Royal Navy and the RAF but still hundreds of miles of coastline in Britain, France, Guernsey and Spain were affected.

It was to be, it seems, the Torrey Canyon’s final voyage. On this voyage the tanker did not have a scheduled route and as such lacked a complement of full scale charts of the Scilly Islands.  When a collision with a fishing fleet had become imminent, there was some confusion between the Master and the helmsman as to their exact position. Significant further delay arose due to uncertainty as to whether the vessel was in manual or automatic steering mode. By the time the problem was corrected, the grounding was unavoidable. In the hours and days to follow, extensive attempts to float the vessel off the reef proved unsuccessful, and even resulted in the death of a member of the Dutch salvage team.

After the attempts to move the Torrey Canyon failed and ship began to break up, the focus switched to clean-up and containment of the resulting oil spill. Detergent was used on a large scale by Cornwall fire brigade and attending Royal Navy vessels in an attempt to disperse the oil.

A meeting between the UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his cabinet held a meeting at the Royal Naval Air Station at Culrose and decided to set fire to the vessel and surrounding oil slick to limit the extent of the oil disaster. As a result on 28th March 1967 the Fleet Air Arm sent Blackburn Buccaneer planes from RNAS Lossiemouth to drop forty-two 1,000-lb bombs on the ship. The RAF sent Hawker Hunter jets from RAF Chivenor to drop cans of aviation fuel to make the oil blaze!  However, exceptionally high tides put the fire out and it took further Sea Vixen bombing runs from the ENAS Yeovilton and Buccaneers from RNAS Brawdy. RAF Hunters with liquefied petroleum jelly joined in as well to ignite the oil. Bombing continued into the next day before Torrey Canyon finally sank.

When this was all over some 50 miles of French and 120 miles of Cornish coast were contaminated. Around 15,000 sea birds were thought to have been killed, along with huge numbers of marine organisms, before the 270 square mile slick dispersed.  A large percentage of the damage was caused by the heavy use of so-called detergents to break up the slick.

The British government was strongly criticised for its handling of the incident, which was at that time the costliest shipping disaster ever. The RAF and the Royal Navy also came in for ridicule, as 25% of the 42 bombs dropped missed the enormous stationary target.  Claims were made by the British and French governments against the owners of the vessel and the subsequent settlement was the largest ever in marine history for an oil claim.

The wreck of the Torrey Canyon lies at a depth of some 30 metres (c100 ft) beneath the waves where the disaster began.


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